BABYLON (Heb. Bavel, בָּבֶל, Gk. Βαβυλὼν), ancient city on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River in what is now Iraq. (In contemporary convention, "Babylon" is used for the city name and "Babylonia" for the country. In biblical Hebrew בבל is used for both.) Its ruins lie within the suburbs of the modern city of Baghdad. No satisfactory etymology for the city's name has been proposed. Akkadian scribes derived the name from the words bāb-ili ("gate of god"), but in Genesis 11:9 the name is explained derogatorily as a derivation from the root bll ("to confuse"). The English word follows the Greek spelling.
Biblical tradition lists the city with Erech and Akkad in the land of Shinar (Gen. 10:10), as one of the earliest cities in Babylonia. This view of the antiquity of Babylon was also current in Babylon itself in the period after
, but in fact before 2050 B.C.E. the city was only a small provincial town.
The first certain mention of Babylon in cuneiform texts is from the time of the Third Dynasty of Ur (2112–2004 B.C.E.), when it served as a provincial capital and seat of a governor. During the Isin-Larsa period (2017–1794) it became the capital of a small independent kingdom under an Amorite dynasty. Its kings enjoyed unusually long reigns, and this may symbolize the stability which allowed them eventually to take a dominant role in Mesopotamian politics. The city gained fame during the time of Hammurapi (1792–1750 B.C.E.), when it extended its influence over most of southern Mesopotamia through diplomacy and then military conquest. The kings of Babylon saw themselves as heirs of the Old Akkadian rulers who had first unified Mesopotamia 400 years before. Under Hammurapi's son Samsu-iluna, however, the southern part of the kingdom was lost.
During the subsequent Middle Babylonian period Babylon continued as a capital city in southern Mesopotamia. Assyria in northern Iraq tinkered in Babylon's politics. Under the Assyrian king Tukulti-Ninurta I (1244–1208), Babylon was partially destroyed. When Tiglath-Pileser III (745–727) took Babylon, he gave it the status of an independent kingdomunited to Assyria. In Babylon he reigned under another name, Pulu, which is found in the Bible (II Kings 15:19). Shalmaneser V (726–722) continued the practice of employing another name in Babylon, Ululayu, an adjective meaning "of the sixth month," commemorating the month of his birth. The Chaldean Marduk-apla-iddina (biblical
(Akk. Marduk-apla-iddina)) proclaimed an independent kingdom upon Shalmaneser's death, but
(722–705) overthrew him in 710; and, though he did not adopt a different throne name in Babylon, he made it his residence for a time and added "the king of Akkad, governor of Babylon" to his titles.
Following Sargon's death Merodach-Baladan Mardukapla-iddina returned, and this may be the time of his correspondence with
of Judah (2 Kgs. 20:12–19, II Chr. 32:31). Babylon again became a center of resistance to Assyria, inspiring the Assyrian king Sennacherib to destroy the city in 689, an act widely viewed as sacrilegious. His son Esarhaddon (680–669) rebuilt the city and expressed piety toward its gods. At the end of his life he divided his kingdom between his two sons, making Shamash-shum-ukin his heir in Babylon and Assurbanipal in Assyria. But Shamash-shum-ukin thwarted his father's plans by trying to make southern Mesopotamia completely independent of Assyria. Assurbanipal besieged
Babylon and recovered it from his brother, but at considerable cost to the strength of the empire.
As Assyria was collapsing, in 626 Nabopolassar, a Chaldean, made himself king of Akkad at Babylon. He and his successor,
II, proceeded to build the Neo-Babylonian empire at the expense of the Assyrians.
As the capital of the Neo-Babylonian empire, to which Judah was forcibly annexed in 586, Babylon underwent a vast program of public building and fortification. After the fall of the empire to the Persians, Babylon still maintained its dominant position. With the fall of the Persian Empire to Alexander the Great, Babylon offered no resistance and was made the capital of his new empire. But Seleucus I Nicator (312–281), Alexander's successor, founded Seleucia not far away on the Tigris, and the inhabitants of Babylon slowly moved to Seleucia, deserting Babylon, which may have been uninhabited in the first centuries of our era.
As early as the 1780s visitors observed that the site had been looted. Major excavations were conducted by the German architect R. Koldewey (1855–1925) from 1899 to 1917. These excavations revealed data for all levels of occupation from Old Babylonian (1894–1595 B.C.E.) to Parthian times (250 B.C.E.–224 C.E.), but their main importance lay in the extensive evidence for the Neo-Babylonian period (625–539 B.C.E.). Old Babylonian levels were rarely reached, and the high water table impeded excavation of early periods. The excavations are important also in the history of archaeology because Koldewey was the first European systematically to try to trace mud brick architecture and to distinguish between buildings and later pits, leading to what we call stratigraphy.
Koldewey uncovered two palaces of Nebuchadnezzar and an ancient fortress that adjoined the interior wall of the city. The façade of one palace was made of enamel-covered bricks, decorated with pillars and capitals in various colors on a blue background. The royal throne was located in an alcove in the wall opposite the entrance. The hanging gardens referred to by Greek authors including Diodorus Siculus (60–30 B.C.E.) (2, 10:1, "the garden called hung") and considered one of the wonders of the world have never been identified archaeologically. In the palace were discovered clay tablets upon which were inscribed allocations of food for those who ate at the king's table, including
, the last legitimate king of Judah.
To the east of the palaces passed the main road, which was used for processions of the Babylonian New Year celebration. At the road's northern end the processions passed into the inner city by way of the Ishtar Gate, which was decorated with reliefs of fanciful animals with lion's feet. This gate has been partly reconstructed in Berlin and features in all histories of Mesopotamian art.
South of Nebuchadnezzar's palace, at the end of the parade road, was a large temple of Marduk, Esagila ("The house lifting [its] head [proudly]") whose walls were made of trees decorated with gold, marble, and precious stones. North of it stood the ziqqurat, a pyramid-shaped structure built in stepped stages on a square base. Each of its sides was 295 ft. (91 m.) long. The highest tower had a great temple according to Herodotus (1:181), who, however, may never have visited the city. The city and its suburbs, which extended to the west of the Euphrates, were connected by a bridge. Herodotus said that the city had many three- and four-story buildings (1:180).
The greatness of Babylon left its mark in biblical sources. Isaiah 13:19 called Babylon "the glory of kingdoms, the splendor and pride of the Chaldeans" while praying for its fall. Jeremiah was deeply concerned about Babylon, and his book has more than half of the references to the city in the Bible; in his day how one was to relate to Babylon was a major issue, and the prophet himself may have been seen by the Babylonians as a collaborator since he counseled not resisting Babylonian power.
Babylon's city-god, Marduk, became the dominant state god perhaps when Nebuchadnezzar I (1125–1104) recovered Marduk's statue from
; the god was represented in the Creation Epic as having supremacy over the entire pantheon conferred on him by the other gods. Later the god was called Bel, "lord." Both names are known in the Bible, in Jeremiah 50:2 ("Bel is put to shame, Merodach is dismayed") and 51:44 ("and I will punish Bel in Babylon") and in Isaiah 46:1 ("Bel bows down, Nebo [another Babylonian god] stoops").
Babylon became synonymous in apocalyptic thought with decadence and evil and was sometimes equated with Rome and its empire. (For the figure in Christian apocalyptic see Rev. 17). But for most Jews it remained a real place where members of a thriving Jewish community made their homes. The Babylonian Talmud, for example, recalls that Babylon's Jewish community was healthy in terms of its orthodox practice in contrast to others in Media and Elam (Kid. 71b).